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Monday, March 21, 2011

DIY Green Cleaning at Stone Barns with Alexandra Zissu

Saturday was an unexpectedly amazing and inspiring day!  We found out that Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture was having a seminar about making DIY green cleaning products.  After spending time pouring over the labels (and price tags) at our local grocery stores for eco- and budget-friendly products this past week, we were eager to learn about ways to make these on our own, so we signed up!  Apparently we did not read the event description very carefully because we were pleasantly surprised to be taught by the remarkable Alexandra Zissu, co-author of the book “Planet Home,” a green living expert, environmental health journalist, eco consultant, speaker, and mom.  She is extremely knowledgeable on the subject of greening your home, and she encourages and inspires you to make green changes in your daily routines.
Douglas, Alexandra, and Amy
Alexandra discussed with the group the dangers of components found in the mainstream cleaning products and taught us how to make five very useful and green products at home, including: tub scrub, disinfectant spray, glass cleaner, furniture polish, and starch spray (for use when ironing).  She also offered some helpful tips on how to green our homes in the most effective ways, such as ventilating your house, sanitizing only when there’s been an illness or when handling food carrying bacteria, avoiding antibacterial products (especially soaps containing triclosan, an antibacterial and antifungal agent linked to numerous health and environmental concerns).  It was a very educational event, and it made us rethink how we’re going to keep our home clean and green going forward (our commitment: purchase eco-friendly laundry products and make all our own cleaning products, only resorting to mainstream products when our green efforts fail).  Some of the women were saying that when they clean their homes with vinegar (one of the top 5 green cleaning products), their husbands complained of the smell.  Sure, the smell can be strong, but it dissipates rather quickly and it’s something you can easily get used to, especially knowing that you’re preventing the release of toxic chemicals and fumes within your home and the environment.

At the end of the workshop, we told the class about the Green Wedding Giveaway contest and their response was heartwarming.  We explained to them our story, how we found out about the contest, and what we are hoping to do with our community give-back event.  They promised to go home and vote for us; one of the women was so cute, she went to the Stone Barns gift shop and bought Amy a little “blushing bride” pin!  They were very curious about what actions we were taking to make our wedding green (something we plan to blog about at a later date), and were particularly concerned about Amy’s bridal gown.  We assured them that she'll either wear a recycled dress (previously worn by another bride) or wear a dress made from eco-friendly materials.

Alexandra thought the whole concept of green weddings and the GWG contest was great and wanted to take a video with us to include on her website – how cool?! (video below)  We are so grateful to have stumbled across this workshop, to have met Alexandra, and to have had such an inspiring and educational day.  Thank you, Alexandra, for opening our eyes to the world of home-made green cleaning products!!  We encourage everyone to read her new book, “Planet Home” to learn about ways to maintain a natural and nontoxic home (among other things) – friends nearby, we might even lend you our signed copy  ;)


  1. Hey Amy and Douglas! Have you seen this laundry recipe?
    Is it green?

  2. Hi Kelly,

    Great question - we haven't tried to make laundry detergent ourselves (we're admittedly intimidated), but this looks like it could easily be green.

    The one ingredient that stands out as a potential "green" problem is the soap. Plant-based soap (castile) is the best green choice; it's nontoxic and biodegradable! You can find these fairly easily, and Alexandra told us that Dr. Bronner's products are quite good. Coincidentally, we bought a bar at Trader Joe's last week for $2.99 (see our previous blog post), so it's not the cheapest, but it is organic and vegan. Castile soap is also sold in liquid form, which would be handy for other green cleaning product recipes (hint hint).

    Washing soda and borax are both mentioned in Planet Home as "household ingredients for safer cleaning." Be careful handling these while making your detergent, though. Continued exposure to borax has been linked to male fertility problems (okay, so not a problem for you but perhaps men around you), and washing soda can be irritating to your skin; I'd wear gloves while handling either of these agents in their concentrated forms (maybe a handkerchief over your nose/mouth as well). Once in the detergent, it's not a problem as they are diluted to safe levels for skin exposure.

    A side note: you can use vinegar to clean your clothes! Add 1/4 cup of white distilled vinegar to the wash to remove yellowing and inhibit mold and mildew. We even used it to get rid of the moldy smell that was starting to appear in our front loader.

    If you try this detergent recipe, we'd love to hear back about your results. As I said, we're intimidated by the idea of making our own, so for now we're just buying eco-friendly detergents, but perhaps we'll be brave in the future and try it out ourselves. Best of luck! And good for you and your green efforts!! Hope this was helpful :-)

  3. Oooh, really good info, thank you!

    I'm probably not going to try this recipe for a while because we live in an apartment with little storage and the laundry's in the basement, so for now I use Method concentrated laundry detergent (and just about all of their other products). I'm a total vinegar and baking soda fangirl, though. I also really like Dr. Bronner's liquid soap.

    (You mention vegan-- are you veg?)

  4. Hey Amy!

    I love Dr. Bronner's products! They are fairly inexpensive and great for the environment.

    For people interested in "green" cleaning techniques, Umbra Fisk @ Grist has a couple great columns about cleaning with vinegar and baking soda, and other useful tips, here:

    and here:

    For laundry, an easy way to "green" your routine is line-drying clothes rather than using the dryer. It saves energy and prolongs the life of your favorite items!

    Lastly, on a pet issue of mine, I would also recommend checking labels to see whether products you are purchasing contain PALM OIL. Palm oil is often sourced in unsustainable ways, and results in tropical deforestation in environmentally biodiverse and sensitive places like Borneo and other parts of Indonesia. I was looking at purchasing an "organic" shampoo the other day, and one of the ingredients was palm oil! Just goes to show you can't always judge a book by its cover. It's easy to check labels and "vote with your wallet" by avoiding buying products that contain palm oil, so do so whenever possible.


  5. This was a popular post!

    Kelly - no, I'm not a vegan. You might recall I was a vegetarian for four years (latter part of my MIT years), but I later returned to eating meat. I try to buy local meats from the farmers markets, and have found a few "sustainable" restaurants in the city that I love to dine at, but I admit, I'm not a perfectly green omnivore. Something to work on in the future!

    Aimee - thanks for sharing those articles! The blog was so long that we didn't include any resources for folks, but we probably should have. Such a small world; the second link you posted quotes Jeffrey Hollender, the co-founder of Seventh Generation and co-author with Alexandra of "Planet Home." There are a LOT of good resources on the web, so you don't *need* to have a book on the subject (but if you want one for your home library, I highly recommend this one). There are so many issues to think of when choosing products to use in your home - I'm glad you mentioned the palm oil issue, that's a big one that not many people are aware of. It also highlights the many nuances to the eco-friendly product labeling dilemma. Currently, regulations on green marketing claims are very weak, leaving us all potential victims of "greenwashing." As the consumer, the best thing we can do is read the labels thoroughly to understand what you're actually buying. Products that don't disclaim their full ingredients list should make you suspicious - keep shopping! Or... make your own :-)

  6. I didn't remember, but now that you mention it it sounds familiar!

    Have you seen ?
    It's a good resource for finding sustainable (and/or local, and/or organic) meat and other food products and services.

    Looking forward to more posts!!


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